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EPA regional administrator Al Armendariz on environmental justice, Texas' (and the GOP's) war against his agency, and the recent environmental summit in Corpus Christi

Photo: Greg Harman, License: N/A

Greg Harman

Al Armendariz

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

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What does EPA hope to accomplish at summits like this, and are there similar EPA efforts across Region 6?

We hope to really facilitate and start a dialogue. One in which we're just a participant and just one of the people at the table — a dialogue on how to reduce environmental exposure to pollutants. How to improve air quality and water quality, and how to do it in a community that has a mayor and local leaders who want to make it a better place for future generations. Our goal is really to convene people from the environmental justice community, from heavy industry, city, state, federal agencies, ours and others, so that we can move collectively together. Because EPA can't solve all the environmental issues or be the only person championing environmental justice and sustainability in any community. We just don't have the ability, the authority, and the resources. So we need other people to really help make us successful.

We have a summit that kicked off last year in Port Arthur, a port that has large refineries and a major petrochemical industry presence. And what we were able to do there was convene a summit of multiple federal agencies, local officials, industry, and that group collectively identified a number of issues they're going to work on and they're now moving forward. We're not going to solve all the problems, but we did identify some tangible goals, some quantifiable goals. One thing that we did was start a discussion about economic development in the area that's really close to the facilities. Because of a variety of issues, well mainly because it's so close to these facilities, it's a part of Port Arthur that's very economically depressed. It's one of the most economically depressed parts of Texas I've ever seen. And they lack some basic services, including basic access to healthcare. So working through some of our enforcement tools that we have within EPA we were able to restructure an enforcement action so that money is going to come from a Clean Air Act enforcement action to actually build a health clinic in that community. And it's some of the first new developments in that part of town within decades.

In these heavy-industry communities, like Port Arthur and Corpus, do these people simply live too close to these facilities for it to be safe?

People who live closest to these industrial facilities are certainly exposed to levels of pollution above and beyond the average person. And people who live closest to these facilities are getting doses of pollution that are unusual, and my job is to protect their public health. One of the things I've really done is try to focus my work and the work of my staff on improving the public health of the people that live closest to these facilities. And when it comes to proximity, it is certainly the case people get less exposure the further away they are from these major facilities. There will be less of a concern of a catastrophic release if people aren't living so close to the fence line. Adding distance between people and industrial facilities makes common sense. It helps reduce the public health burden from the air emissions. It helps make emergency response more successful.

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